DENVER -- In the end, it was Peyton Manning who pranked us.
That cute game of keep-away, so perfectly pandering to the cameras, supposedly a stunt – that was on the script by Friday, inserted right before the credits would roll. Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, 507, 508, 509, keep-away. It was right there, blocked out like a Broadway musical, and when Demaryius Thomas caught Manning’s 8-yard pass in the second quarter of Sunday's 42-17 romp over the 49ers, he knew what to do.
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So that was why Manning looked to be dancing at practice on Friday as the Broncos began stretching. He was clued in all along. That was why he stopped almost immediately when he noticed reporters and cameras. Of course he was one step ahead. He has been his entire career.
Only Manning would stage his own spontaneity, could pull it off. The quarterback first conceived of the idea last week, Thomas said, and Friday was the dress rehearsal. It’s unclear how many Broncos knew. Tight end Jacob Tamme admits he did not, that if he’d caught No. 509, the scene might have been flubbed. But Manning’s four leading receivers were in on the trick, even if they weren’t completely sure they’d pull it off. Once the ball landed in Thomas’ hands, though, Emmanuel Sanders knew it was a go.
“We were definitely rehearsing it,” Sanders said, “but I didn’t think we were going to do it.” Except that the moment seemed right, and so he ran over to his fellow receivers, and you saw the rest. Eventually, Manning got the ball, and in turn, the Hall of Fame claimed it, bagged it, prepared it to ship off to Canton.
“I can’t believe they actually did it,” Manning said, and it was believable, at least for a moment. Up until then, no receiver had been willing to concede whose brainchild the show had been – at least until Thomas took the podium and admitted it was his quarterback’s plan. So, well, Manning probably can believe it, at least a little bit. His receivers, they tend to follow his plans. (In fact, the bizarre formation that yielded touchdown No. 508 was actually a Friday afternoon brainchild of Manning and offensive coordinator Adam Gase.)
“We sort of joked about it during the week,” Manning continued, playing up his innocence. “I’m a little bit hurt by the fact that they could do that, that they’re kind of picking on me. I’ve lost my vertical leap. It’s not there anymore. My side-to-side agility is not quite as quick.”
But the best part, the best moment as the layers of the prank were peeled away, came later. It was just after Thomas had busted his quarterback, revealed him as the chief conspirator. His allegations were repeated back at him, plain as could be: So Peyton planned the prank on himself? And Thomas glanced down a bit, and looked a little sheepish. “Kind of,” he said, and he laughed, as if he was just fully realizing the extent to which Manning pulls the strings.
There are so many ways to parse Sunday’s theatrics, when Manning finished the night with 510 career touchdowns, pushing past Brett Favre’s record of 508. There was the Broncos throttling of the 49ers, which on a day when Seattle, Cincinnati and San Diego all lost made the Broncos look all that more like the best team in the NFL. There is the comeback from injury, the idea, too easily forgotten these days, that Manning three years ago might have been finished. There is the renaissance in Denver, where he’s averaging 2.92 touchdowns per game, compared with 1.91 in Indianapolis.
There is the history, too, the quarterbacks Manning has gradually passed over 17 seasons. He’s more than willing to expound on that subject, and it’s a genuine appreciation he has for his predecessors. Favre, Dan Marino, John Elway, Johnny Unitas, Fran Tarkenton – on Sunday, Manning traced back over the great names, the names that lend some perspective to his accomplishment, the notion that he might be the best ever. It’s getting harder and harder to argue that, even here on Elway’s turf.
Last year, Manning had his 55 regular-season touchdowns. That was his record du jour, the number looming. This fall, it was first touchdown No. 500, then No. 509. Record, set, which should apply some kind of finality – except it doesn’t. We just keep counting: 510, 520, 600. How high will he go? At 38, Manning gives the illusion that he just might play until he’s 50. He already jokes that he’s old, so what are a few more years? He’s already reached the point where rookies are too young to remember the year he was drafted, and yet he still looks at the game like he has a dozen years in front of him and 10 playbooks to learn.
“He comes in, still writing notes like he’s a rookie,” Broncos rookie return man Isaiah Burse said. “That just shows you how he’s so successful. Every day, he practices like he’s an undrafted rookie."
Burse understands the opportunity he’s been given, to play with the best, to learn from the best. He understands, but he doesn’t. As he stood by his locker Sunday night, Burse, 22, recalled watching Manning when he was a child, wondering what it would like to play with him. And then, after all that, he was there for no. 509. He was just yards from history, but watching Manning, it felt like so much farther.
“I don’t know how he feels,” Burse said. “It must be crazy being in his shoes.”
And really, none of us know. We are all Isaiah Burses, trying to parse a moment that we will never really grasp. We sit back, and we laugh about Manning’s control, his script, which has become the hallmark of his career. We think we know him, think it’s just so typical that he’d orchestrate the keep-away.
Except, of course, that it’s not. On Sunday, Thomas admitted that the game was the first time in his more than two seasons with Manning that he’s ever made time for a diversion on the field. Jokes, surprises, those are for after, once the win has been sealed. Only then.
“[Planning the prank] isn’t his style, in my opinion,” Tamme said. “Five seconds later, he was talking about how we needed to put the pedal to the metal and finish the game, really finish strong and keep going. So for him to take a little 10-second break from that and have some fun with a really special moment, I thought it was cool.”
The planning, that was Manning, through and through. But the moment itself, the goofy dance of keep-away as it unfolded, Peyton and his pack of receivers, that was different. It was a rare admission that this – the winning, the records, the greatness – is simple. It is a playground game, a goofy sideshow.
It is fun.